Lanark: A Life in Three Acts

Issue section: 

This new stage adaptation of Lanark, which premiered at Edinburgh International Festival in August, is self-concious about being just that. Its source material, Alasdair Gray’s much-loved novel of the same name, is never out of sight — sometimes literally.

It is difficult to see the play as being entirely its own thing. At points it seems to require a familiarity with the novel to understand the entirety of what is going on. With most adaptations this would mean failure, but for Lanark the novel is so long, complex, and strange, that interpretation may be a better aim than straightfoward adaptation.

Lanark tells two related stories — one realist and semi-autobiographical about a boy growing up poor in Glasgow, and the other a surrealist science-fiction story about a man named Lanark in a city called Unthank, which has no sunlight, and which shares landmarks with Glasgow.

Aspects from the realistic portions re-emerge in exaggerated form in the surrealist story, and the two stories share themes and characters.

The Citizens Theatre, based in Glasgow, regularly puts on plays about working class life and resistance in the city. Most famously, Glasgow Girls told the story of a group of teenage girls fighting the deportation of their friends and neighbours. More recently Fever Dream Southside was set in Govanhill and touched on the fight to save the Govanhill Baths.

In Lanark these themes again emerge, with the depiction of working class life, corruption in city politics and the notable appearance of Unthank trade union banners. Characters negotiate with bureaucracy and live in cities their corrupt councils do not care for, with poor housing and no jobs. The ways in which these economically oppressive forces affect the personal lives of the characters is another theme common to both stories within the play.

The production seems aware of the high esteem in which Glasgow holds Gray. The play is one aspect of the city-wide celebrations marking his 80th birthday. This respect for his writing is evident in the script.

The play itself is long at four hours, but is engrossing, smart and funny. The staging is clever, incorporating many different aspects to show the vast visual difference between the various settings of the two stories. It takes imagination to show the stranger aspects of Lanark’s stories, and here many different techniques — projection, puppetry, Greek chorus, music — are used to great effect.

David Greig’s adaptation takes tangible delight in translating the book’s strangeness to the stage, and this joy is what makes up for the play’s faults. If it is sometimes slightly too reverent of the work on which it is based, it is also an interesting and well-done work in its own right.